19°32.489’S / 169°27.376’E
BETWEEN THE GREENS HILLS OF JANKAI quietly sleeps a grey giant.
The locals have many names for it: Yasur, Yahuwai, God, Man, Great Spirit. They all point to one thing.
The always present active volcano on Tanna Island next to which they have lived for centuries.
Here, the people have withstood colonialism and christian missionaries more than on other islands
and beliefs in John Frum, a mystical messiah, make the people actively keep their old traditions and “Kastoms” alive.
One of these villages is Lamakara. For the people here everything around them comes from the great spirit. The grey mountain is ever present in their lives. From most places in Jankai you can either see or hear it. Every few seconds a growling echoes through the valley as if to remind you of something. From time to time an elder of the village fasts, drinks Kava and climbs up the steep mountain to talk to the god. He asks for good harvests, rain and for the volcano to have mercy on the villages. This saves them from getting destroyed. For the people he is a mystical figure. He speaks a different language, the language of the Stamba, of the great spirit.
Mount Yasurby Ramin Krause | Oct 27, 2015
1 : Prologue
Our journey to meet the Kaulaka starts in Lenakel, the biggest settlement on Tanna Island.
The road we are on leaves Lenakel towards the east.
It winds its way across the island to the other side.
East is the volcano. East is where we go.
As we walk the sun inevitably reaches its peak and burns down onto our heads.
Time slows down.
Sweat runs down my forehead and drips off my eyebrow onto my hand.
The sun reflects in my sweat.
The wind plays through her blonde hair. It dances up and down. Sometimes, when the truck drives through a pothole, it jumps up high and falls back onto her shoulders. After a few hours of walking a truck has finally stopped and given us a lift. As 5 of us sit on the back of the truck we pass villages, road markets and schools. Many of them teach in white tents, proudly presenting the UNICEF logo over the open entrance.
The traces of aid are everywhere around Tanna island. Tents, tarps and trucks carry big logos of aid organisations. Ones like “Australian Aid”, UNICEF and The Red Cross I recognise. Others like the Chinese CCECC I have never heard of. In Lenakel all the children were carrying school bags and writing blocks presenting an overly big kangaroo. Proudly sponsored by the Australian government, as if to remind the people who helped them. Or maybe just because they could not think of anything nicer. But roads are built and people receive rice they urgently need until the crops grow again.
It makes me notice my mixed feelings and thoughts about post-catastrophe aid, with all it’s different views and angles, complications and the diversity of it’s realisation. How much technology and help do the people here need? While it is crucial, how much benefit does short-term aid really leave behind?
It is a complicated topic and I decide that I cannot make up my mind over it yet.
After crossing the highlands our road starts to wind downhill, exposing a view over the east coast of Tanna with the big, grey giant soundly sleeping in the north.
As we continue the ground under our tyres starts to change. The stoney road turns into black sand making the movements of our Jeep softer. At a junction we jump off the back and continue walking down the road.
2 : Mount Yasur
In front of us there he is. He is the reason we came here, he has been calling us. Yasur, the volcano. A dark grey, faceless giant sitting majestically in an otherwise very green and hilly landscape. To the left of it a big hill, covered in dense forrest reaches to the ocean in the east and builds the right wall of the valley in which we will later wander into to find our place for the night. At one point the forrest just stops and the grey, heavy sands and ashes of the volcano suddenly start.
A border, like an invisible wall, between two profoundly different worlds.
One full of life, breathing, growing and moving, a diverse manifestation of life itself.
The other flat, uniform and motionless.
An endless desert of ashes, dead and silent.
We spend time with our faceless friend. Moses, our friend and guide we met in Lenakel, suggests we go to his village. It lies in the east, in the valley. We pack up and leave the soft ash of the moon landscape for a stoney track leading into light woods.
At the entrance of the village a boy with lettuce in his arms announces our arrival to the people further down the road. He points towards us and screams something we cannot understand. He speaks in Naveh, his local language. They speak it in Lamakara and a few bays further south. In the north they speak Narak. In Naveh the volcanos name is Yasur, in Narak it is Yahuwai. All in all there are 22 different languages just on Tanna island. Bislama, a form of Pidgin english, is the only way people from different sides of the island can communicate.
The village we enter, Lamakara, is built around a big plaza with a little, wall-less building. It functions as the church and the greeting house for guests, as the community house and a shading spot during hot, sunny days. Most of the houses are small traditional huts, made from bamboo and coconut leaves. Two for each family, one for sleeping, one for cooking. There are around 40 houses in the whole village, all built in random formations around smaller plazas.
On some of these, pigs are fenced in and piles of wood and stones lie around. The houses come in all kinds of variations, the common features seem to be the material and the triangle roof. In the front the door usually allows entry, sometimes left open, sometimes covered with a leaf or a metal plate. Here and there a house stands on sticks, probably against flood and heavy rains.
Inside the interior is pretty rudimentary. The ground is covered with leaves, woven into mats. Rooms are separated by colourful sheets hanging from the ceiling. Many of the families use Lumiaids, inflatable solar charging LED’s, and hang them outside of their house during the day. They are supplied by one of the many Aid agencies that flooded into Vanuatu after the Cyclone and have since left. Everywhere around the country they have left their traces.
You can build a traditional house like this in two days if you have the materials ready and know what you are doing. The only stone building stands a little elevated, facing the plaza, overlooking it. It is a bulky, grey stone house with four bamboo flag poles in front of its entrance. On one of these the american flag is raised every morning at 8. Everybody who is present on the main plaza claps for a short moment, looks up and then continues their daily routine. It shall symbolise the strong friendship between Lamakara and the United States of America. Wait, what? When I ask Moses about it he explains: It is the country of John Frum, the soldier, the chosen one. “Who is he?” I ask. “You will see soon” he says.
As we sit in the community house Chief Isaac, Moses’ uncle, welcomes us. He invites us to stay for the night and we are shown the hut we will sleep in. We bring our belongings inside. Tomorrow night we will go up the volcano.
After resting for a little while we go down to the beach. Apart from a woman fishing in the waves and a few guys playing football we are alone. A little river flows next to a high cliff towering into the sky. The water is hot. Natural hot pools. As I sit down all my muscles relax. The heat, as so many other things here, comes from the volcano. It warms your body if you don’t go too close to the spring. It can be a blessing and a curse. With these thoughts in my mind I slowly fall asleep.
Later that evening, as the sun is setting, we walk back from the beach. On the way I see a big red cross standing in the centre of the village we pass through. It has a slightly forgotten little garden in front of it. It reads:
4 : John Frum
The first piece of a big puzzle starts to unfold in front of us. John was a US soldier that landed on the island in the 40’s during WWII, Moses explains. He stayed in this village for a few weeks and convinced the people to hold onto their Kustoms, their traditions. Then he went back home, leaving behind the promise to return. He never came back but the people kept on hoping. Around this hope a cargo cult, a mystical religion and even a political party with one seat in parliament developed. John Frum, the soldier, became a mystical messiah and part of a bigger prophecy. The prophecy of Yasur. Whether he was even a real person is unclear. Here, the lines between real figures and spirits that appear to people blurs.
The cargo cult started as a movement against the Presbyterian missionaries. Between the early 20th century and WWII they imposed the so called Tanna Law on the people here. Many of them had already moved from their villages to the new missionary settlements near the coast just to be subjected to highly repressive christian practices, designed to change their kastom way of living. But the people on Tanna Island held onto their traditions more than communities on other islands. They went back to their villages and reinforced their old traditions as something they identify with and fight for. Now, the villages are well know all around Vanuatu as Kastom villages. They still wear nambas, penis sheaths and grass skirts, they chew the Kava before drinking it and still talk in their local tongues.
(in the Melanesian Islands) a system of belief based around the expected arrival of ancestral spirits in ships bringing cargoes of food and other goods.
At the centre of this movement stands the “Kaulaka”. He is the spiritual connection between the people of the Jankai valley and the volcano and a driving force in the efforts to keep the local traditions. The moment I hear about him, about the man who climbs into the volcano to talk to the spirit, I want to meet him.
As we walk back up into the valley we pass huge Banjam trees towering over the huts. Their big branches reach into the sky. They get very old and host many different plants in and on them. A beautiful symbiosis over our heads, mirroring the prophecy of the Jankai valley. Moses points to a cave under a tree. “The Nakamal” he says. Sometimes the people create these caves under the trees and let the roots grow around them. In here the people then gather at night and drink Kava, a locally grown root. The Nakamal typically has a shelf with empty coconut shells standing near it, from which the people drink.
Kava plays a crucial role in the lives of the people. It is their relaxation at night after work, a social occasion and the medium that spiritually connects them to their land, to nature and to Yasur, to god. “You want to drink Kava?” Moses asks “Tonight you can go to the Nakamal.”